Zac Halbert

Zac Halbert

Product Design Portfolio

Illustration for the article representing navigating a complex path through a forest

Maintaining Strong Relationships with Mentors

Maintaining Strong Relationships with Mentors

Keeping a mentorship relationship healthy is an extension of finding and keeping any human relationship healthy. Don’t look at the relationship as strictly transactional. Even if a mentorship relationship is transactional, it’s icky to be too forward about it. Treat your mentor as a human being who is also dealing with their own challenges rather than some kind of one-dimensional advice dispenser.

The prerequisite to all of this advice is that you have done the work to find a good mentor.

Understand the Value Exchange

A lot of early career designers are anxious about the value they can bring to a mentor’s life, which is completely fair. I’ll let you in on a secret though. Designers continue to offer mentorship because we get something out of the relationship too. It’s different for everyone, but here’s a paraphrased list of things that applies to me and other mentors I’ve spoken with.

  • It’s a way to help a designer that reminds us of a younger version of ourselves.
  • It’s a way to pay it forward in gratitude for all the help we received from our own mentors.
  • We gain a feeling of authority when mentees are willing to listen to our advice, which may be a welcome feeling depending on what we're dealing with in our day-to-day.
  • We gain a feeling that we're validating our tribal membership by helping reduce the struggle all designers experience.
  • We gain a sense of escape from the challenges of our day-to-day of shipping software.
  • It’s a great way to build our leadership skills, which can help us with our own career growth.

Your mentor will be gaining some or all of these things from your time together. Steer clear of the mindset that positions you as an inferior groveling for handouts at the feet of some benevolent senior designer. This is a collaborative, balanced exchange where both parties win.

Showing Your Gratitude

The best way to show gratitude for your mentor's time and keep the exchange balanced is a simple 3 step process:

  1. Ask them for advice they’re in a good position to give. In other words, don't ask a VP of design for Figma tips, and don't ask a mid-level IC designer for tips on managing a design team of 8.
  2. Apply the advice they give you, or tell them why you’re choosing not to and what you're going to do instead.
  3. Follow up with results and a thank you to let them know their time was not wasted, even if you followed a different path than they advised.

It’s fairly simple, but goes a long way. From my own perspective, it's a bummer to invest time in someone, only to have them disappear.

Honesty & Openness

Being honest with your mentor is just as important as being honest with your doctor. They can’t help if they don’t know what’s going on.

One disclaimer: your boss cannot be your main mentor. They can be a mentor, however. You need to be able to have an open and honest relationship with this person, which is hard to do if they hold the keys to your future.

The reason this is so critical is that some of our greatest and most shameful career mistakes can be our greatest teachers if we have the courage to face them openly. You may suffer short term consequences for a mistake like getting fired or demoted, but the long-term impact could be super-charged growth. Hiding your mistakes in shame robs you of that opportunity. I have made my fair share of mistakes that I have tried to hide. When I finally shared them, my main insight was that shame turned it into a much bigger deal in my head than it needed to be and I could have grown faster if I had allowed a supportive mentor help me process it.

I get it — this is incredibly vulnerable. If you don’t feel you can be vulnerable with your mentor, then you need to find a new mentor. If you don’t feel you can be vulnerable with any mentor, then you need to get into therapy and figure out why.

Be Teachable

Teachability is an extension of honesty & openness. Being teachable is much harder than it looks. I have had mentees whose typical response to my guidance was some form of “Yeah yeah, I already knew that.” That makes me feel like I’m wasting my time, even though I know deep down they are probably just feeling insecure about appearing not to know something in front of someone with more experience.

Even if that’s true, it still makes it hard to have a real mentoring relationship. Being teachable means emptying your cup and accepting a mentor's guidance as one input, even if you feel you already know it. When you aren’t closed down, you’ll likely find new framings and perspectives. That tends not to happen if you allow your ego to feel under threat.

My younger self was incredibly guilty of not being very teachable due to my own insecurities. If you’re reading this and have been a mentor of mine in the past, I’m sorry. 😬

It’s your responsibility to stay in touch

As the mentee, it’s your responsibility to stay in touch with your mentor. From the mentor’s perspective, they are probably sensitive about giving unsolicited advice and will wait for you to reach out and ask for it. You should take it on yourself to schedule follow up sessions, and come to those sessions prepared. Help your mentor help you, and don’t expect them to chase you down and force-feed you growth.

I would suggest to your mentor a regular meeting cadence, such as once per month or quarter depending on your needs. Ask your mentor what works for their schedule, then be diligent about making those meetings. Avoid scheduling meetings whenever you think of it. In my experience, ad hoc meetings tend to get scheduled frantically when my mentees need something urgent, such as reviewing an exploding job offer, or a challenging situation with a coworker that has hit a boiling point. While I'm happy to help, I am not always available to fit in an urgent meeting at the last minute.

The worst type of all is when I don’t hear from someone for many months because they got laid off or fired and were too embarrassed to tell anyone. It’s a vulnerable thing to share, but those are the times when a supportive mentor can be the most helpful. I promise you that your mentor is not going to think any less of you because you made a mistake that got you fired (here, I’m delineating “mistakes” from “HR violations”).

Long Term value

This may seem like a lot of work, but the value you get from a long term mentorship relationship can be invaluable. Personally, I literally cannot imagine my career without the influence of my mentors.

The mentorship relationship is one that takes time to build, but if you invest in it, it will benefit you in ways that are difficult to conceive of.

All writing